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If you’re a voter in the United States, you’ve probably seen your fair share of political ads on TV. And if you’re Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., you’ve apparently seen enough of them.
A sarcastic new ad video Walker put out this month pokes fun at political campaign ads — and House Democrats’ plan to help finance them.
The video shows an actor who, playing the role of a politician, is seen woodworking by a river. "Hey there," the actor says. "I’m a politician, attempting to do human things so that I look relatable."
The ad targets HR 1, the sweeping election-law bill House Democrats passed March 8. Walker, who represents North Carolina’s 6th Congressional District, posted it to YouTube March 7 and shared it the following day via Twitter and a press release.
"This week, House Democrats will pass HR 1," the actor in the ad says. "They’re calling it the ‘For the People Act,’ but really, it’s for my campaign consultants."
"HR 1 is going to take your hard-earned tax dollars and millions more and send them to my campaign so I can put ads on TV," he continues.
PolitiFact North Carolina found the ad funny, but also interesting. We decided to check its claims against the text of the bill, which is meant to overhaul the laws surrounding money in politics but is expected to die in the Senate.
Our finding: Despite what Walker’s ad says, the public-financing program put in place by HR 1 would not depend on tax dollars, and not all candidates would qualify to benefit from it.
One goal of HR 1 is to minimize the influence big donors and super PACs wield over elections.
HR 1 would provide a 6-to-1 match for small-dollar donations and create a pilot program in three states to provide $25 vouchers for eligible voters to give money to candidates for Congress.
Walker’s ad gives the impression that anybody running for federal office would stand to benefit from these provisions, but that’s not actually the case.
For starters, the 6-to-1 ratio would only apply to donations of $200 or less, including those made via the voucher program.
Not all candidates would be allowed to receive matched donations, either. To be eligible, they would have to raise $50,000 in small-dollar donations from at least 1,000 individuals during the qualifying period, and they would have to agree to accept no contributions larger than $1,000.
Ray La Raja, professor of political science and an expert in campaign finance at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said the eligibility requirements would make the matching program attractive to some candidates more than others.
"My hunch is that many Democrats would participate under the reform, but probably not those who expect highly competitive elections," he said. "They would not want to risk coming up short of money for the campaign."
"Additionally, candidates who have ideological followings will likely benefit from this program," he added. "Ideological candidates tend to draw more small donors."
Walker’s ad suggests that these programs — and the ads they could help finance — would be paid for using taxpayer money. As the bill is currently formatted, that’s not the case.
The money would actually come from a new "Freedom From Influence Fund" under the U.S. Treasury, which would collect funds from a 2.75 percent fee assessed on criminal and civil fines and penalties or settlements with banks and corporations that commit corporate malfeasance.
Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonprofit think tank for campaign-finance research, said money coming from the fees would not be taxpayer money.
"Anything that’s funded by penalties is not being funded by taxpayers," he said.
Rick Hasen, professor of law and politics at the University of California, Irvine, took a less certain position. "I think it is debatable whether it is still fair to call it ‘tax dollars’ being used to pay for the ads," he said, adding that the funds will enter into the "public fisc" with taxpayer money even though they are "not from a direct tax."
In any case, Walker spokesman Jack Minor said the fees were not part of the version of HR 1 that was introduced to the House Jan. 3 or the version reported from the Committee on House Administration on March 4.
"Congressman Walker is a member of the House Administration Committee," Minor said. "The bill that passed through there … there was no discernable funding structure."
The fees were added by an amendment during a Rules Committee debate on March 5, after the Congressional Budget Office had estimated the bill’s costs. Earlier versions of the bill did not make it clear where the Freedom From Influence Fund was supposed to get most of its money.
But the funding mechanism was in place before Walker circulated his ad online.
Minor said problems could arise when moving the fee money to the Freedom From Influence Fund. "This money would go to the Treasury’s General Fund where it would be intermingled with all taxpayer money as public funds," he said. "Later, an equal amount would be transferred from the Treasury’s General Fund to the Freedom From Influence Fund."
Noting that the CBO estimated very high costs for the bill’s provisions, Minor also said the money from fees would not be enough to pay for the donation-matching and vouchers.
"The federal government taking money from an American citizen is a tax," he said. "And when Congress irresponsibly creates new pools of money that will inevitably fall short of adequate funding levels, Congress must take money from taxpayers to pay for the shortfall."
But the bill explicitly states that no money would be drawn from outside the Freedom From Influence Fund, and that the payments used for vouchers and grants would be reduced if there was not enough money in the fund.
"In any case in which the Commission determines that there are insufficient moneys in the Fund to make payments to participating candidates under this title, moneys shall not be made available from any other source for the purpose of making such payments," the bill says.
If HR 1 were to become law, future legislation could still change the funding mechanism to one based on tax dollars. A similar program for judicial candidates in North Carolina — which was repealed in 2013 — got half of its money from a $3 voluntary check-off on the state tax form, according to a summary of the program from Democracy North Carolina, an advocacy group focused on voter participation and money in politics. So it would not be unusual to see taxes come into play.
But the version of HR 1 that passed takes specific steps to avoid dipping into taxpayer money.
Walker’s ad said, "HR 1 is going to take your hard-earned tax dollars and millions more and send them to (a candidate’s) campaign so (he) can put ads on TV."
The video glosses over some key details about HR 1 to leave a misleading impression.
First, the bill’s public-financing options would not be available to all candidates, generally speaking. To be eligible, candidates would have to satisfy certain threshold requirements and refuse to accept individual contributions of more than $1,000.
Second, as the bill is currently structured, the program would get money from a 2.75 percent fee on people and corporations that commit malfeasance — not from a broad pool of tax dollars.
The ad contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. So we rate it Mostly False.
This story was produced by the North Carolina Fact-Checking Project, a partnership of McClatchy Carolinas, the Duke University Reporters’ Lab and PolitiFact. The NC Local News Lab Fund and the International Center for Journalists provide support for the project, which shares fact-checks with newsrooms statewide. To offer ideas for fact checks, email [email protected].
Representative Mark Walker on YouTube, "H.R. 1: For the Politicians Act," March 7, 2019
Rep. Mark Walker on Twitter, March 8, 2019
Congressman Mark Walker, "H.R. 1 Will Force North Carolina Taxpayers to Buy Campaign Ads for California Politicians," March 8, 2019
Congress.gov, H.R. 1 — For the People Act of 2019, March 14, 2019
Congress.gov, Final Vote Results for Roll Call 118, March 8, 2019
The Center for Responsive Politics, "Donor Demographics," accessed March 21, 2019
The Washington Post, "Would ‘every small dollar donated’ be matched 6 to 1 under the House Democratic plan?," March 8, 2019
The Washington Post, "Mitch McConnell: Behold the Democrat Politician Protection Act," Jan. 17, 2019
PolitiFact, "House Democrats and HR 1: Voting rights expansion or federal power grab?" Feb. 8, 2019
Email interview with Rick Hasen, professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, March 20, 2019 and March 22, 2019
Phone and email interviews with Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, March 20, 2019 and March 22, 2019
Phone interview with Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, March 20, 2019
Email interview with Ray La Raja, professor of political science at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, March 25, 2019
Phone and email interviews with Jack Minor, communications director for Mark Walker, March 20, 2019 and March 22, 2019
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